7 Best Urban Survival Shelters – What and How to Build

To stand a chance of survival, it’s crucial to understand the basics of building and living in an urban survival shelter, at least until things return to normal.

Far fetched…maybe. But, it’s interesting to think about and a little knowledge can go a long way.

The best urban survival shelter should keep you free from any type of danger. Good urban survival shelters should utilize available resources like cardboard, abandoned clothes, discarded materials, or even buildings. The ideal survival shelter should also be warm enough to protect you from rain, snow, and strong winds when necessary.

Are you looking to learn more about the best urban survival shelters, and how to keep yourself (and family) safe in emergencies? Read on for an in-depth discussion on the basics of building and living in urban survival shelters.

What Is an Urban Survival Shelter?

Covid-19 has proven that nothing should be taken for granted. Not even the basic liberties we enjoy as civilized people. With the flick of a hand, what we perceive as normal might transform into a not-so-distant memory.

As it relates to survival, an urban shelter is similar to a wilderness shelter. However, the difference is that an urban shelter is meant for emergency situations in urban centers when disaster strikes at home (or office) and not in the wilderness while hiking, backpacking, or camping. (Captain obvious, I know)

So, to boost your chances of surviving natural disasters, civil wars, and other unfortunate events that can occur in an urban setting, it’s crucial to know how to set up and transform an urban survival shelter into your safe-haven.

Abandoned Buildings

In emergencies, you need to think and act fast if you’re going to keep yourself and your family safe. While abandoned buildings usually have underlying problems for them to be abandoned in the first place, they can come in handy in giving you an emergency shelter in a safe, warm place.

However, before you enter abandoned structures, it’s always best to check for structural integrity. If the building appears unstable or improperly constructed, it’s best to avoid it and consider other options.

Remember, other people are likely to spot and seek shelter in abandoned buildings as well, hence the need to ensure its structurally sound.

While it might be tempting to pick a large enough room inside an abandoned building, try to choose the smallest one for your needs. The trick with small rooms is they’re easy to heat and seal.

Sealing a large room might need more resources than you have at your disposal, thus making it difficult to keep outsiders away or even trap heat.

If you have loads of options to consider, try choosing a room without any windows. This is because windows aren’t the best insulators and could also pose a security threat if broken. 

However, if all the available or somewhat ideal rooms have windows, then it’s best to insulate them in whatever ways you can. Put up sheets, trash bags, clothes, crumpled newspapers, towels, and other materials to seal the heat and insulate your little survival shelter.

Pros of Using Buildings As Survival Shelters

  • Require little modification before they’re fit for survival use
  • Perfect for shielding against elements like snow, strong winds, and rain
  • Among the best methods for trapping and retaining heat
  • Can be used for long-term survival purposes

Cons of Using Buildings As Survival Shelters

  • Attractive to most people, which can lead to congestion or security issues
  • Can be structurally unsound, thus increasing the risk of collapse
  • Might host “creepy crawlies” or other animals, especially in rooms filled with wood and other construction materials
  • Most abandoned buildings have broken windows and lack doors, making it difficult to trap heat  

Cardboard Box Shelters

Cardboard boxes make fantastic shelters in SHTF situations. This explains why it’s a favorite for homeless people. The good thing with cardboard shelters is that they’re easy to make.

Provided you have large-sized cardboard at your disposal, then you shouldn’t struggle to create your small shelter.

The size or type of cardboard shelter you make should depend on the availability of cardboard. While having several boxes to work with will help you set up a structure, it’s possible to keep warm and safe with small boxes as well.

According to an experiment done by the Practical Survivor, it’s possible to increase a cardboard box shelter’s internal temperature. In the experiment, a shelter was made using a refrigerator box and Styrofoam.

How to Make a Cardboard Box Shelter

There are several ways to make a cardboard box shelter. However, the best method will depend on your available resources. For instance, if you don’t have many insulating materials on standby, it’s best advised to make a triangle-shaped shelter.

A triangle cardboard box shelter won’t have many walls that need insulation, thus making it ideal for use in SHTF situations. You can also use a rectangular configuration if you want something a little larger.

Some of the must-have materials when making a shelter out of cardboard include:

  • Duct tape or other alternatives like cordage
  • Cutting blade (what’s your EDC knife?)
  • Cardboard 
  • Bonus: styrofoam (if you have access)

Since we’re talking about emergency situations, chances are you might not have enough time to collect supplies. However, the most important items to have when looking to construct a stable cardboard box shelter are duct tape (or cordage), a cardboard box, and a blade.

A blade could be anything sharp you have on you, whether your EDC knife, a multitool, a piece of broken glass—just anything that’s sharp enough to get the job done! If all else fails, you can use a little elbow grease and carefully tear the cardboard apart.

Rough Measurements 

The first step in building a shelter of this type is to try and get rough measurements. Cutting off the different parts of a cardboard box without considering dimensions increases the chances of ruining things before you get started.

Therefore, try your best to get an idea of your final design and take that into consideration when you begin cutting.

This will allow you to know which areas to cut out and which ones to leave as they are.

Naturally, a writing instrument of some sort could help you to mark the areas to cut out, but you can use any item (including sharp objects) to score the cardboard such that you know where exactly to cut.

Cut and Attach

Once you have a rough idea of your preferred design, it’s time to get started cutting. Gently cut off the base area, carving out a large-enough floor that can accommodate you “comfortably”.

The next step is attaching the walls to the base area. This is where your duct tape or cordage comes in if you are using multiple pieces of cardboard.

Again, there is no perfect way to make a cardboard box shelter, so use whatever you can source. In survival situations, you’ll find that improvisation can be your best friend due to often limited resources.

Use the duct tape or any material you have at your disposal to create a stable connection between the walls and the base areas. After you’ve joined the main parts, you should start closing one end to help insulate and block the elements.


Insulating with styrofoam (if you are so lucky) allows you to trap the air inside by minimizing conduction and convection. With that in mind, it’s also advisable to place your insulating material on the base area to provide protection from the cold floor or ground.

You can always use discarded clothes or blankets, or natural materials like leaves for insulation as well.

Place a Door 

The last two steps are placing a door and waterproofing your cardboard. Luckily, placing a door on a cardboard box isn’t rocket science. All you’ll need to do is seal the remaining end by attaching a piece of the cut cardboard box.

As you attach the door, make sure you allow a way for it to be opened and closed from the inside. You should also consider how you will attach it to keep is closed if possible.

Disclaimer, you should never attempt to make your cardboard shelter airtight. Ideally, the door shouldn’t be fully shut to allow for proper air circulation.


The final step of setting up your shelter is waterproofing it if needed. Items such as plastic bags, carpet, emergency blankets, and additional cardboard can help waterproof your shelter. The more the outer covering, the better the chances of keeping the structure waterproof.

Be sure to keep weight min mind. We are not building something engineered to carry a heavy load.

Pros of Using Cardboard Box Shelters

  • Easy to construct
  • Can fit well in tiny spaces
  • Helps to trap and retain heat
  • Doesn’t attract a lot of attention
  • Easy to move around with when the need arises
  • Ideal for wind breaking purposes and can also keep out light rain

Cons of Using Cardboard Box Shelters

  • Cardboard can be hard to come by
  • Not ideal for use in heavy rains or snow
  • Can be damaged easily
  • Usually needs to be placed somewhere warm and away from attention
  • Wrong construction techniques can make the shelter useless
  • Not large enough to accommodate other survival items

Debris Huts

Debris huts are associated with wilderness survival, but you’ll be shocked to learn that a debris hut can thrive in urban centers. Of course, you won’t be using sticks and leaves to make an urban debris hut.

What you’ll need is several newspapers, blankets, carpets, clothes, and any other insulating items you can lay your hands on.

Debris huts work best in incomplete buildings, abandoned structures, or even abandoned vehicles such as buses and trailers. It isn’t ideal to set up a debris hut out in the open as elements such as wind and rain can leave you thoroughly exposed.

How to Make a Debris Hut

Urban debris shelters follow the same techniques as above

Find the Right Poles

When looking to make a DIY debris hut in urban emergencies, the first step is finding the right poles, limbs, boards, etc. Try looking for any item that’s long and strong enough to hold rugs, clothes, or other debris in place.

You’ll have more luck searching for poles and wood in construction sites than at the mall, so try to be as creative as possible when looking for structural material.


While you can use short poles on the sides, you’ll need to use a strong enough pole to act as a foundation (ridge pole) for your shelter. Once you’ve set up the main pole, carefully place the side poles or sticks.

You won’t need too many sticks or poles to make a survival hut in an urban center, but it will be better for you (and your family) if you could use several sticks and poles to add structural integrity.

After placing the sticks and poles in place, next is placing the insulating items. This is where you get creative and use any item that can act as a windbreaker. We’re talking about clothes, carpets, plastic bags, blankets, and any other items you can access.


You should layer the insulators strategically. Start by setting up a large base layer (if you have a large carpet or plastic bag). You should then place newspapers, clothes, leaves, and other items to lock in air and act as windbreakers before placing the final layer.

Ideally, the final layer should be heavy enough to withstand strong winds and prevent moisture from seeping through the other layers.

Seal Properly

If you plan to stay in the debris hut for several days or even weeks, try your best to seal the outside layers, leaving only the exit/entry point open. The exit shouldn’t be too large as it’ll reduce heat retention inside the hut.

An extremely small entrance or exit isn’t advisable either, especially since it’ll make leaving or entering the hut problematic.  

Make Sure Your Location Is Suitable

You should always check on location when building a debris hut. Setting it up in an exposed location is a recipe for disaster due to the risk of rain and strong winds. A strong enough wind can throw your insulation out of position, leaving you with a shelter that can’t retain heat.

Therefore, the best solution is to find a structure or abandoned vehicle (see below) that can house your hut.

For heat retention purposes, your debris hut shouldn’t be too large. An excessively large shelter might also prove difficult to insulate, especially when working with limited resources.

Pros of Using Debris Huts As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Relatively easy to make
  • Can be customized to accommodate several people
  • Can be made from a variety of items such as blankets, carpets, leaves, etc.
  • Easy to hide or camouflage if the need arises

Cons of Using Debris Huts As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Not great at heat retention, especially when using newspapers
  • Can be easily destroyed by strong winds and rain
  • Not easy for inexperienced people to build
  • Can take a bit of time to build

Abandoned Vehicles

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in emergency situations, you’ll need to use any object that’s large and safe as a survival shelter. Luckily, abandoned vehicles tick both boxes.

However, before you start using an abandoned vehicle as your shelter, it’s advisable to check things out in advance.

This means checking for used matchsticks, clothes, food debris, and other signs that point towards someone living inside. The last thing you want is to set up in another man’s castle.

Besides checking for human habitation, a thorough inspection will allow you to detect the presence of bugs and other insects. Check on whether the car has large-sized webs or animal droppings.

You should also check for snake sheds before using the abandoned vehicle or trailer as your new survival shelter. Better safe than sorry.

Once you’ve confirmed the vehicle is safe enough for use, the next step should be prepping it up. Preparing vehicles for emergency shelters usually depends on the state of the vehicle. A badly ruined vehicle will be harder to insulate than one with all the windows intact.

Dust the seats to remove any dirt and clean up the insides to make it comfortable enough. Seal all exposed points of entry using cardboard boxes, bed sheets, and even plastic bags. The idea is to have a warm enough place to sleep in.

While abandoned vehicles make perfect urban survival shelters, the chances of finding unoccupied abandoned vehicles are usually slim. This is because if they aren’t occupied by the homeless, they are likely parked on the owner’s property. Use at your own risk.

Pros of Using Abandoned Vehicles As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Usually warm enough due to enclosed spaces
  • Large trailers or buses can fit debris huts and cardboard boxes shelters
  • Safe as doors and windows can be locked (through improvisation) to somewhat deny intruders entry
  • Ideal for both short term and long-term usage  

Cons of Using Abandoned Vehicles As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Hard to find an abandoned vehicle that’s unoccupied
  • High risk of running into crawling insects, spiders, and snakes are higher in abandoned vehicles.
  • Might not be ideal for a large number of people

Walls and Fences

In the event of urban emergencies, chances are everyone will be scared and desperate to secure urban survival shelters at the earliest possible opportunities if the situation dictates it.

This means there is a likelihood all the good spots like abandoned structures and vehicles may be occupied, hence the need to be extra creative.

With a long enough wall, gate or fence, you can set up a debris hut or tent-like structure. However, for this method to work, you’ll need to have a waterproof outer cover. The question is, how can you make a survival shelter using walls and fences?

First, you’ll need to find the right-sized fences or walls. Again, there is no perfect size when it comes to walls and fences. All sizes can work if you have the right insulating materials.

Setting up structures on short walls or fences allows you to create a slanting roof, which helps to ensure rain droplets don’t settle on the roof in the event of a downpour.

Setting up shelters against fences and walls allows you to retain as much heat as possible. This is because the wall or fence will act as a windbreaker on one side, while the slanted roof will help to direct cold air down and away.

How to Set Up a Survival Shelter Against a Wall or Fence

If you don’t have access to a tent that you can hang from the top of the wall or fence, then you should try using sticks. Placing several sticks from the wall and fence can help you form a strong enough base for your roof.

Ideally, the limbs or poles should slant against the wall, allowing for a large base but narrow top design.

Once you’ve set up the sticks or limbs as a support structure, it’s time to place all the insulation you have access to. This means placing blankets, newspapers, clothes, bedsheets, and even plastic bags on the exposed part of the shelter.

The good thing with this method is that you won’t need to insulate too many parts since you’ll only be adding an external wall that acts as a slanting roof.

Make sure you leave a small entrance area that you can close once you get inside. The entrance area should be small enough to prevent the entry of cold air if possible. The best idea is to create a small-sized opening that can be accessed in a crawling position.  

If you intend to use the shelter for several days to weeks, then you’ll need to make it waterproof. Consider adding several layers of cardboard, heavy clothing, or plastic on the outer surface to prevent water from coming inside when it’s raining.

Pros of Setting Up Urban Shelters Against Walls and Fences

  • One of the easiest ways to set up an urban shelter, especially if the area is secure enough
  • Helps in heat retention
  • Difficult to find walls and fences congested by other civilians
  • Can be a long-term shelter option if located in a good area

Cons of Setting Up Urban Shelters Against Walls and Fences

  • Can backfire in the event of heavy rain and extreme weather
  • Exposes inhabitants to the risk of people, wild animals, and insects
  • Some walls or fences may not work due to construction


Please note that dumpsters should be your last resort if you don’t have any other area to find shelter. Ideally, no one should live in a dumpster due to the health hazards associated with the garbage, rodents, and flies, but if push comes to shove and you don’t have any other place to run to, then you must use a dumpster as your shelter.

Dumpsters are normally made from heavy metal, meaning you’ll be safe from elements such as rain, snow, and strong wind while inside the structure. 

However, before you seek shelter in a dumpster, try to find one that is empty or with as little garbage as possible. Strategically emptying trash means getting rid of the organic trash that stinks (and attracts pests) and leaving the more comfortable garbage like boxes and clothes.

Pros of Using Dumpsters As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Dumpsters are usually strong enough and large-sized to fit several people
  • Perfect for protection against rain, strong winds, and snow
  • Not the most popular option, which reduces chances of overcrowding

Cons of Using Dumpsters As Urban Survival Shelters

  • Not hygienic and might lead to medical complications
  • Home to rodents and other pests like cockroaches
  • Not ideal for long term usage
  • Makes an uncomfortable shelter due to the strong stench  

Abandoned Furniture

You can also use abandoned large furniture as your shelter during emergencies. A large enough item can act as a bed, but only if it’s inside a building or enclosed structure. You can also use a desk as a shield from elements if you find one that’s large enough. Remember, you can use anything you can find.

Don’t overlook any type of furniture when looking to prepare an urban survival shelter. While some furniture types might not act as perfect beds or insulators, they can come in handy in storing your survival cache.

Pros of Using Abandoned Furniture As Survival Shelters

  • Large furniture doesn’t require too much insulation work
  • Furniture can help to retain heat by filling up a tiny room
  • Perfect for storing emergency supplies  

Cons of Using Abandoned Furniture As Survival Shelters

  • Furniture shelters work best in enclosed spaces
  • Large seats and tables are likely to attract other people
  • Might house harmful insects and pests  

Wrapping It Up

Your ability to survive urban emergencies greatly hinges on how fast you react. A fast-enough reaction means you’ll find the best shelters to keep you and your family safe as you wait for things to calm down.

The survival shelters discussed in this article are just a few of the options available. Therefore, if one isn’t practical based on your location, consider trying something else until you find a shelter that works you.

The trick is to build a shelter that isn’t too large in order to retain as much heat as possible. You should also weigh your options based on the number of materials you have at your disposal. 

Whichever method you prefer, be sure to do your due diligence and inspect for human habitation, harmful insects, spiders, snakes, and other concerns. 

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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